Teach the Earth > Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Optimizing Instrumentation

Optimizing Instrumentation in Support of Undergrad Research

By Jeane Pope, DePauw University, with contributions from David Gonzales, Fort Lewis College; Dave Mogk, Montana State University, Bozeman; and Jeff Ryan, University of South Florida

Why work with instruments as part of the undergraduate curriculum?

An Ion Chromotagraph in the Water Quality Lab at DePauw University
Working with modern instruments in classes or while conducting independent research projects provides valuable opportunities for undergraduate students. It is important for students to be able to learn about science while using the tools of science (DeHann, 2005). Collecting their own data provides students not only with relevant experience in the geosciences, but also an understandable feeling of pride and accomplishment. Information on this page provides examples of how different types of instruments can be used in support of geoscience education as well as different considerations a faculty member will want to think about when building exercises or projects as part of the undergraduate curriculum at his or her institution.

How do instruments improve student learning?

Studies of pedagogical effectiveness have shown that sophisticated instrumentation is useful for enhancing student learning of complex material.

Students using a gradiometer at Middlebury College

How can instruments be used in classes or independent projects?

There are numerous ways that different instruments can be used to support geoscience pedagogy. The Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum pages give specific examples of instruments used in different disciplines. Here you can also find links to other sites to find more information about strategies for using instruments with undergraduates. Users of Undergraduate Research site are encouraged to visit the companion web page on Geochemical Instrumentation and Analysis which provide tutorials on Xray, electron beam, mass spectrometry, other spectroscopies, environmental sampling and analysis, biogeochemical methods and geobiology/genomics techniques.

How can you use instruments when you don't have them on your campus?

Remote Access to Instruments

A growing menu of research instruments can be operated remotely, and a number of analytical user facilities are offering remote operation as an option for using their instrumentation. The Florida Center for Analytical Electron Microscopy (FCAEM) offers remote operation access to both an electron microprobe and a scanning electron microscope, for use in both research and classroom applications.

Instrument Registries

Significant resources have been invested by NSF in the purchase of a wide variety of analytical instrumentation. To optimize the use of these investments, we have developed instrument registries as a "matchmaking" service a) to help faculty and students gain access to modern instrumentation to support their research efforts, and b) to help lab managers identify clients to generate revenue to offset lab expenses (and instruments that are routinely used typically are in a better operational state). Lab managers are encouraged to list their instruments in this service. Potential users will find all pertinent information about lab facilities such as contact information, model of instruments, lab capabilities, sample preparation requirements, and terms of use.

How can you find funding to help pay for instrument time?

What are the advantages and drawbacks of using instruments with students?

Faculty members who are considering using sophisticated instruments with undergraduate students should carefully weigh the benefits to students and for their own research program against the costs of doing so. Although instruments, especially automated instruments, can greatly speed up the data collection process, care should be taken to make sure that students understand how the instrument works. Using instruments as "black boxes" does little to improve student learning. For example, see Geochemical Instrumentation and Analysis tutorials as a place to start in training students in the use of these techniques. Furthermore, researchers should be aware that as the chief scientist, they have the final responsibility for assuring the quality of the data that are generated by students. Other advantages and drawbacks of using instruments when working with undergraduates include:

undergraduate students from Fort Lewis College using the LA ICP-MS to measure trace and REE in rocks of the Navajo volcanic field at the U.S.G.S Federal Center in Denver in Alan Koenig's lab


References and Pedagogical Studies

An extensive bibliography has been compiled for the Elements Magazine volume on Teaching Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry; many of these references describe use of analytical instrumentation in a variety of geoscience courses.

This site also hosts a variety of case studies, many of which involve using instrumentation with undergraduate students.

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